Monday, December 18, 2017

Outgunned and undermanned


Mark Fraser

 A TOTAL of 2,500 new guns have been ordered but with a shortage of police officers in active duty, who will use these guns? The acting Commissioner of Police has a guesstimate of the required strength of the force. Over time, Cabinet has approved 7,715 officers for the Police Service, but over 2,100 are missing in action. Worse than that, in the 11 units at the heart of the Police Service’s “anti-crime” operations, the shortage of officers is endemic.  It is simply typical of the hodgepodge approach to fighting crime.  

Every anti-crime initiative assumes the availability of officers, but the strength is not there. The Homicide Bureau of Investigations is at 45 per cent, missing 90 officers; Organised Crime, Narcotics, and Firearms Bureau is at 33 per cent and missing 177 officers; Court and Process is at 48 per cent; the Criminal Gang Intelligence Unit is at 67 per cent; the Financial Investigations Bureau (FIB) is at 38 per cent. The Anti-Corruption and Guard and Emergency branches are at 50 per cent, short by 200 officers combined. These 11 critical anti-crime units should have 1725 officers, are at 57 per cent strength, and are short by 735 officers. The criminals are at full strength, so what is the acting Commissioner of Police doing?

As the country’s murder toll hit 360 in November 2013, the 14th report of the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on Ministries, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (Group 2), was laid in Parliament. The acting Commissioner actively participated in the deliberations of the JSC and somehow never told the JSC that a shortage of guns was an issue for the Police Service. The JSC identified some other key weaknesses of the Police Service’s operation and no new law enforcement initiative on crime will solve the problems once the Police Service is in this mess. In any corporation with over 7,000 employees, spiralling deaths in its “customer base” and glaring leadership and management gaps, there will be a major shake-up and reorganisation. The police cannot handle the level of crime and even in a piecemeal approach the Police Service is the critical piece.  

The most shocking JSC findings were the absence of a scientific study on the desirable size of the Police Service, the significant shortage of officers based on the 7,715 approved by Cabinet, and the lack of empirical data to support policing efforts. It found no strategic approach to incorporating information communication technology into the operations of the service, and no inter-agency approach regarding firearms control. Assuming all the officers the service guesses it needs are found and deployed, there is no basis for saying that this number will meet the actual needs of the service.   

Then, apart from the difference of 1,430 officers between the guesstimated and current strength, another 612 officers are listed as being “not available” due to extended sick leave, suspension, study leave, preretirement, and vacation leave. Taking this unavailability into consideration the Police Service operates even further below its guesstimated strength. 

Prof Selwyn Ryan’s committee report titled, “No time to quit: Engaging youth at risk”, notes that, the quality of life in T&T is dependent to a large extent upon the way in which the police function. The numbers conundrum is being felt at the core of the Police Service. The service operates with only 40 per cent of the required number of sergeants, 74 per cent of constables, and 84 per cent of corporals. The service is short by almost 2,000 officers in these three categories. Launching and re-launching anti-crime initiatives may make good PR statements, but theoretically the officers are not in place to deliver.  

Apart from the recruitment and training of new officers, simple changes to the existing pension rules and retirement age for second division officers may make these officers available beyond ages 50 and 55.  An urgent assessment and deployment of technology may increase officer effectiveness in an under-strength service. Once and for all a consideration of CCTV, its wider deployment, and the legal issues around its use can fill some of the gaps in officer numbers.  And, let’s face it: no criminal activity can account for hundreds of murders annually without at least one financial institution taking in millions from customers who cannot justify their source of funds. 

The latest Financial Investigations Unit (FIU) report to Parliament points to hundreds of money laundering reports and referrals for further investigation, but no one can identify the action taken. It’s not surprising given the lack of resources at the FIU itself, the FIB, the Integrity Commission, and the office of the DPP.

Apart from the magical number of officers the service requires, granular data on policing is missing. What tasks are clearly policing tasks to be performed by police officers and what tasks are technical or administrative tasks capable of being performed by civilians, particularly through third party service providers? How can the disparity in compensation and benefits between the Police Service and Municipal Police be fixed to allow the two forces to have a seamless role in fighting crime? And finally, how can private security companies work with the Police Service, with reports already laid in Parliament on the regulation of the private companies? The recent glaring, brutal, and unsolved murder and million-dollar heist from a private security company’s cash transit operations remains a reminder of how inadequate and uncontrolled private policing is, but a well regulated private industry can support policing efforts over the long term. 

Even in its undermanned state, the Police Service is spending 70 to 75 per cent of its annual budget on manpower costs. Over time the service has never been at a point where it had the required accommodation, equipment, and officers. Anyone who takes on the 24/7 risks of thug life knows that death will come on the street much quicker than from the hangman. The fear of death is no deterrent.  A strong and able Police Service may be.

• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer